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The End of Trans America Comes Into Focus

The laws proposed around the country by Republicans would make life for transgender people functionally impossible. The danger is in being under-wrought, not overwrought.

Anti-trans activist Chris Elston demonstrates outside of Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts on September 18.

Republicans have made it clear that their number one legislative and cultural priority is the “eradication of transgenderism from public life,” as was stated by Daily Wire host Michael Knowles at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. While Knowles later claimed he did not mean killing transgender people, he made it clear that transgender people have no place in public life in any way shape or form and that the full force of government should be used to achieve this aim.

More anti-transgender bills have been filed this year than in the past four years combined, and by the time the year is finished even more will have passed into law. These laws are designed to make life for transgender people functionally impossible: to make it impossible to go to school, to get medical care, to get accurate government IDs, to be protected from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, to go out in public without violating laws against drag, to participate in sports—banning them from the military, banning them from all types of media, and even making it illegal to use a public bathroom. The laws go so far as to write the existence of transgender people out of law—to effectively unperson them as a class.

The rhetorical war on trans people has become apocalyptic in its language. Even tolerance of transgender people is framed as something that will end not only the United States but civilization as we know it. Pundits who make millions of dollars a year speaking to audiences on Twitter and YouTube describe “gender ideology” (i.e., trans people) as the greatest evil since Auschwitz and Mengele’s experiments. They frame how transgender people should be treated as “It’s us or them”: If they are not destroyed soon, we, the real Americans, will be.

There is more than a hint of the attitude that “we have tolerated these people for too long, even as they destroy our nation from within and pollute our culture.” There’s incitement to violence to protect women and children, even as party-affiliated militias (whether the Sturmabteilung or the Proud Boys) engage in campaigns of intimidation. Such sentiments and statements would not seem out of place uttered by Goebbels in 1933 or Tucker Carlson today.

There’s a pattern to how states target disfavored minorities with the intention of driving them out, or underground. It starts with rhetoric demonizing a minority, designed to start a moral panic, and with laws meant to “encourage” the targeted minority to leave by making life as dangerous, unpleasant, and untenable for them as possible.

Over time, as the situation deteriorates, many choose to leave no matter what the personal cost because anything is better than this: whether it was Blacks fleeing the American South during the Great Migration or the 60 percent of German Jews who left the country between 1933 and 1939. Modern-day Republicans are not even hiding the fact that the goal of their anti-LGBTQ policies is to encourage them to flee. When a poll found that over half of Florida’s LGBTQ parents were considering leaving Florida because of Governor Ron DeSantis’s policies, his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, responded on Twitter with an emoji of a hand waving “Bye!”

We can already see the beginnings of this pattern with the trans community in the U.S. People like the Shappleys, the Texas family who were the most vocal advocates for their children, are packing up and leaving red states even if they don’t have homes or jobs waiting for them elsewhere. Their calculation is the same as it was for Jews in the 1930s: It doesn’t matter if we end up in a homeless shelter far away, it is still safer than living under this fascist government. Other trans people and families of trans children are emigrating, believing that the more distance they put between themselves and their former homeland, the safer they’ll be.

Jewish emigration was the goal of Germany prior to 1942. Often lost in the history of Kristallnacht was that Germany rounded up approximately 30,000 Jewish men at the same time and sent them to concentration camps. However, the vast majority were released within a few months, if they signed agreements to leave Germany and never return. This spurred another wave of terrified Jewish immigrants liquidating their assets and going to whatever country would take them. All too often, no country would.

The terror, hopelessness, and despair within the trans community over the laws and policies forcing them to leave or detransition is palpable. We see young trans people choosing between the futures they hoped for and survival. For some it is too much, and all signs point to a dramatic rise in suicides. Yet still, it will not be enough to achieve the GOP goal of eradicating transgenderism, just as all the things done to German Jews still left 40 percent of them in place at the start of World War II.

Some people are too poor, too young, too old, or too sick to flee. Others gamble that things will get better: that the fever will pass and people will come to their senses. Some believe that they can bleed off their wealth over time to ride it out: that their upper-middle-class status will shield them until the storm passes. Others believe that being the right sort of person will save them, whether it was “I served in the Kaiser’s army” in 1939 or “I voted for Trump twice” in 2023. A small number believe that they will be able to stay and fight.

Thus, there will always be some left who are still there after every effort has already been made to drive them to leave semi-voluntarily. Unfortunately, fascist forces have convinced themselves, and their base, that unless this number is reduced to zero, unless this malign influence is eradicated utterly, the country cannot survive.

The Christian fundamentalists behind this push to purge transgender people frequently use an analogy about dog poop in brownies to describe why even the slightest contamination with LGBTQ ideas is unacceptable to God. This mindset leads to the conclusion that there cannot be a trace of “transgenderism” left in the U.S., and this means using all means available to ensure not a single transgender person remains in public life, except for closeted or detransitioned people living in fear, the way gays do in Saudi Arabia. It is irrationally optimistic to hope that they will pull back from this goal because they realize they have gone too far: That would require them to pull back on their most deeply held religious views.

When fascist governments decide that they have hit the point of diminishing returns with efforts to drive out the undesirables, they move on to a final solution, whatever it may be. The GOP has already introduced laws and policies across half the country that could accomplish most of what German laws did between 1933 and 1939. Most have not passed yet, but it appears only a matter of time before they do. The number being introduced and passing is accelerating, as are their scope and severity. Whereas bathroom bans and eliminating health care for adults was almost unthinkable mere months ago, we’re now seeing it pop up across red states. Other previously unthinkable things, like Russian-style anti-LGBTQ propaganda laws, book bannings, and threats against internet service providers, are ubiquitous.

The GOP knows, however, that it is running out of laws it can pass to make people leave voluntarily, and it knows some people will try to stick it out the same way people did in Germany. For example, the state Supreme Court blocked Tennessee’s anti-drag law on free speech grounds. It’s going to need a next step to eradicate transgenderism, and what the step will be is now coming into focus.

We first glimpsed it when Tucker Carlson proposed stripping trans people of not only their right to own guns but of guns entirely. Calls for stripping trans people of guns only increased after it emerged that the Nashville shooter was transgender, though the shooter does not appear to have been targeting Christians or have had any political motivations, as was initially claimed by conservative media.

The Supreme Court has decided that the Second Amendment is a nearly inviolable civil right, which means that there are very few ways to take guns away from people. One of the only ways to strip a person of their guns is declaring that the person “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” This suggests that at least some conservatives are looking to use courts to label transgender people “mental defectives” en masse.

Further evidence of this came during speeches at the recent NRA convention. The overwhelming narrative is that mass shootings and gun violence are caused by “mental illness” (and not the 400 million guns in civilian hands). Former Vice President Mike Pence called for mass institutionalization of the mentally ill to prevent violence. Donald Trump was explicit as to whom the others meant when they called for mass institutionalization of the “mentally ill,” alleging that everyone knows that hormone replacement therapy makes transgender people dangerously psychotic. He also put internment camps (“tent cities”) forward as a way to deal with homeless people.

Still, the emerging narrative appears to be coordinated: Trans people are dangerously mentally ill and should have their guns taken away to be institutionalized for the sake of society, and for their own good. The message is that “transgenderism” is why people are committing mass shootings at schools, and this creates a legal framework for mass institutionalization.

As one veteran civil rights lawyer pointed out to me, you can drive a semi through the hole that “protecting women and children” blows in what’s known in legal terms as “intermediate and rational basis scrutiny.” We can also see the collapse of the courts as a defense against civil rights abuses, whether it’s the Dobbs decision or deciding that innocence is no bar to executing prisoners. For instance, would Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk or the Fifth Circuit stop Texas from executing an emergency public health declaration that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is grounds for declaring individuals mental defectives or institutionalizing them if they argued that the safety of women and children was in imminent danger?

You may think I sound overwrought. But there are indications that preparations might already be in progress for mass actions against transgender people as a class. Texas and Florida have been drawing up secret lists of known transgender individuals, and state officials refuse to answer what purpose these lists might serve. Missouri, after effectively banning health care for all trans people in the state, set up a government web page “where people can report trans individuals and the people who help them,” but did not specify what it intends to use this information for. Florida politicians are laying the rhetorical groundwork to make involuntary institutionalization of trans people seem like an act of mercy and compassion: They claim that trans people are begging them for help and their actions are intended to give trans people the help they want and need.

This would be a one-way ticket to unspeakable horrors. It is nearly impossible for people to regain self-agency through the legal system. The “help” would be conversion therapy, conditioning, and indoctrination, and the confinement likely under terrible conditions. “Curing” transgender people who have already undergone gender-confirming surgeries could require “agreeing” (under extreme duress) to try to reverse those surgeries.

If this sounds familiar, it really, really should.

For anyone who reacts with “it couldn’t happen here,” I would remind them of Masha Gessen’s rules for surviving autocracy: namely, “Believe the autocrat,” and “Your institutions will not save you.” You would have to disbelieve their stated goal of “eradicating transgenderism.” You would have to deny that the U.S. is capable of doing horrible things, like the internment of Japanese Americans or the Tuskegee experiments. Or believe that the court system built by Republicans would consistently block the actions of Republicans. One could easily imagine the Supreme Court coming down on the side of states’ rights and finding that individual states have the right to set their own laws for determining mental competency and what constitutes a threat to public health.

There’s no guarantee the GOP will move on to the next step required to eradicate transgenderism. Maybe this is a bridge too far for the courts. Maybe a few moderate Republicans will balk at such brutal government overreach (though very few have done this so far). Maybe protests and boycotts would sway them (though corporations have failed to punish red states for targeting the trans community). But it is becoming increasingly clear that they will try, opposition has done little to slow them down, and now they’re hinting how they intend to close the deal.